Until the 1900's natural dyes were what everything was colored with. Natural dyes can come from plants (fruit, leaves, seeds, or stems, it all can be used to create a different color), or they can come from animals (primarily insects and sea loving), and lastly minerals (this sure caused some deaths before chemistry advanced past alchemy). Some of the oldest textiles in the world were found in Peru and are estimated to date close to 10,000 B.C. I found this connection to history to be one of the most intriguing and humbling aspects of natural dyes, and also one of the most disheartening abut new synthetic dyes.
Now before we get into some of the issues with both natural and synthetic dyes. Let's rewind to the start of humanity, personally I'm taking it back to Adam and Eve. They were totally happy roaming around completely naked. I love me a good wander around the house naked, but the thought of going anywhere or pretty much anyone seeing my completely naked body is making me nervous just thinking about it. So now we're operating post the fall of homo sapiens and we don't want to be naked anymore. I imagine ancient man rocking some fierce fur maybe a pop of plant leaf for an accessory. Our ancestors although stunners rocked these pieces entirely out of necessity for warmth and survival. I originally wasn't going down this path, but now before I make my original point, let's sit in this space.
Think about your wardrobe how many of your pieces actually serve a purpose?
Now back to the main point, early people are wearing some odd items- and then they look around and start to see that nature with no effort is beautifully clothed. The green shades of their leaves, vibrant pink of the flowers some flowers creating their own rainbow in hues of yellow, orange and rust all in one. The love of nature wasn't just for these flowers and plants but even for the dirt and rocks which could be rich reds, dark charcoal and pancake batter cream. This love of natural beauty inspired our ancestors to paint their bodies- creating multi color patterns each specific to their current situation. Some were for war, others to represent maturity, marriage and loss. (While I reference this in the past it is important to acknowledge that many cultures around the world still practice this connection to nature)
What started as painting their skin began to transform into making clothing that used the color that nature provided to color the cloth that hid their bodies. These practices weren't discovered overnight, but over decades and centuries. People discovered early on that natural dye alone wouldn't stay on the fabric and I imagine through trial and error in about 900 A.D. people discovered tuvari which contains alum (a mordant still used today) that acts as a bridge between these large fabric molecules and the large dye molecule.
Natural Dye Exploitation
The environmental plus of natural dye is that most of the dye matter will go back to nature. The materials can be composted or put in the soil. One major dye that doesn't do this is- indigo which is a post of its own, it will not dissolve in water and floats on the surface causing all animal and plant life to die.
The main area historically that needs to be addressed is when colonials got a taste for color! Tyrian purple derived from a sea snail, which required over 200,000 snails to make an ounce and the color was more valuable than gold. Indigo was once referred to as blue gold and Indian workers exploited to do the work and then the British got the profits. Cochineal from a small insect was so overused that they almost became extinct. This color demand meant only the rich and famous had clothing to match the luster of nature.
If you keep candy from a child as soon as they can get any they will eat and eat and eat, afraid that they will never get a taste again. That's how the middle and lower class felt when synthetic dyes were discovered, the first being mauve by William Perkins in 1857. When color became available for anyone they bought, and bought and bought.
Now, we are back to modern day and we are living in a time after the creation of these synthetic dyes. The truth is, we don't really understand these chemicals that are being bound to the fibers that we are putting on our body. For example- Google for yourself azo dye ban and see how many articles come up. These azo dyes were one of the most widely used that proved to be toxic and carcinogenic and this hazard transported through the skin. Our skin is a precious organ and to dance with chemicals to mimic nature at the cost of nature just doesn't seem right. One more thing... most of these synthetic dyes start as by products of coal and are transformed to color through chemical synthesis.
What do we do?
The first thing that we do is to buy less clothing to reduce the impact of the synthetic dyes. Next buy used and as old as possible to try to predate the use of synthetic dyes and re-purpose these garments. Lastly, when you do have to buy new buy natural - and research how they were dyed.
Handbook on Natural Dyes for Industrial Applications
Painted Bodies: Africa